In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade must begin a new story every evening. She must make sure that the sultan is so eager to hear its conclusion he postpones his plans to execute her. On they go, month after month, year after year, a different story every day.
I want you to imagine Boris Johnson as Scheherazade. He is taking the stage at the Conservative party conference dressed in diaphanous silk harem pants, a velvet top with chiffon sleeves, a veil to hide his true expression, and with pearls taken from the jewellery collection of a Russian oligarch’s wife laced through his hair.
Johnson, too, knows he must come up with a new story every day. He must so entrance his supporters they never shake themselves from the web of fiction he has ensnared them in for long enough to execute his career.
At the start of the conference, the tale from One Thousand and One Nights of Boris Johnson mocked the stupid merchants in the bazaar. Businesses had failed to plan for the consequences of Johnson’s policies, and their hubris had provoked the nemesis of food and fuel shortages for everyone else. ‘It is fundamentally up to them to work out the way ahead,’ Johnson said. ‘The government can’t step in and fix every bit of the supply chain.’
For the tale to work, business must play the knave or the fool. Grant Shapps, a minor rather than a grand vizier, explained 'I’ve seen people point to Brexit as if it is the culprit here, in fact they are wrong’.
Pernickety critics said that, in fact, the finger pointers were right, as the government’s panicky decision to issue visas to European drivers proves. To these literal-minded nit-pickers, the story suffered from a fatal lack of plausibility. Business has not been negligent. The British Haulage Association has been warning for months that cutting the UK off from the labour supply provided by European Union drivers risked ‘a collapse of the supply chain’. Haulage companies cannot issue visas themselves any more than exporters can cut through the bureaucracy Johnson tangled them in when he forced through a hard Brexit. The crisis is the Johnson government’s responsibility and the Johnson government’s fault.
But look at me making the mistake of thinking that art must imitate life. It is a philistine error to treat Johnson’s fairy stories like a realist novel. Only plodding minds think fiction should bear any connection to the world as it is. ‘Speak not of what concerns you not, lest you hear what pleases you not,’ says a character in One Thousand and One Nights, and Johnson always wants to please.
In a previous story, he characterised the shortages that now threaten to derail the recovery from the pandemic as a ‘period of adjustment’. And a necessary period of adjustment because they would lead to a glorious Brexit future with ‘better paid, better skilled jobs’ for British people.
I won’t be a boring realist and point out that the only way he can pretend wages are rising is by using a trickster comparison between the Covid and post-Covid economy, which his own Office of National Statistics described as ‘misleading’. Let us also forget that, because of the government’s decision to tax workers and employers rather than rich pensioners — as well rising inflation and the cut to universal credit — employees’ living standards will fall.
Forget all that. On their own terms as works of fiction, the stories do not hang together. If Brexit is not to blame for the economic chaos, how can Johnson claim that the Brexit chaos is bringing an imaginary rise in real wages?
But I suppose readers don’t ask themselves whether the tales of Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba hang together. They are separate stories that delight the audience in their own special way. You don’t wonder why you are on the high seas with Sinbad one day and in a cave with 40 thieves the next. The stories are discrete works of fiction. We must appreciate them in isolation, not expect them to make the slightest sense as a whole.
Take the Irish fables as an example. In 2016, Johnson promised Brexit would leave arrangements on the Irish border ‘absolutely unchanged’. He proved he was a storyteller to match Scheherazade when he persuaded the Democratic Unionist party to take a decision so stupid a Belfast politician predicted to me that examiners will be asking history students 100-years from now to write essays on what the hell the party thought it was doing.
The answer can only be that the allure of fiction convinced Unionists to back Brexit and then to undermine Theresa May and back a hard Brexit. Then they woke up shocked to discover that they had weakened the Union they swore to protect by putting a border in the Irish Sea. Not that Johnson’s government admitted it. The story was ‘there is no Irish Sea border'. Only later did it admit to the border’s existence but insist it didn’t want it and it wasn’t its fault. By yesterday the narrative arc had developed, and the government was pretending it could tear up the agreement it had signed as if it had not signed it.
So many nights. So many stories. As the audience looks back down the years, they will remember the story of Johnson saying ‘there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade’. His deal would ‘allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends.’ (Exporters order books have collapsed.)
They will remember Johnson harrumphing to the House of Commons that ‘there is no threat to the Erasmus scheme,’ and any MP suggesting otherwise was ‘talking through the back of his neck'. (Erasmus has now gone.)
Older readers will remember Johnson warning in 2016 that Turkey would join the EU if they did not support Brexit and 77 million Turks could be coming here ‘without any checks at all’. (Five years on and there still isn’t the smallest possibility that Turkey will join the EU.) They may even remember Johnson saying, ‘I didn’t say anything about Turkey in the referendum’. (He did.)
Back we go until we reach the founding myth of the Brexit campaign that all warnings about the dangers of believing a word Johnson said were ‘Project Fear’. He would make ‘this country the greatest place on earth’. We would overtake France and Germany and our children and grandchildren would live ‘longer, happier, healthier, wealthier lives’.
Perhaps Conservative voters start each day afresh willing to believe today’s story even as yesterday’s is discredited; perhaps the audience at the Conservative party conference will listen as eagerly as the Sultan listened to Scheherazade and never want the web of fantasy to snap. As their country sinks around them, they will applaud their unreliable narrator and prove the wisdom of the words of One Thousand and One Nights: ‘People need stories more than bread itself’.
Or petrol, or fish, or exports or an honest prime minister.